NASA’s Continuing Foray Into Pop Culture

Guest article by Greg Fish (blog: world of weird things)


Oh what havoc faux-conservative pundit Stephen Colbert wrought on NASA and the ISS! To think that a little publicity stunt would actually put the U.S. space agency in a jam and incite grudging grumbles from Firefly fans who were sure that Node 3 would be called Serenity. Even a few Congressmen who found time away from dealing with a painful and deep recession that’s put the entire economy in turmoil, are now involved in sorting out this little mess.

But there’s actually an interesting question in this seeming non-story. Should NASA embrace the will of the masses and give nods to pop culture in how it officially names its spacecraft? There are stories of informal call signs for capsules and modules taken from the Peanuts comic strip, but there’s never been an official designation that reflects what’s popular here on Earth at the time of the mission. What would benefit NASA more? Giving in to the power of the fad or staying resolute with timeless names?

Recently, NASA has been doing all it can to get more people interested in space travel and what it does on a daily basis. There’s NASA TV, a NASA blog, a NASA Twitter for headline missions and the agency is embracing social bookmarking for just about every news release and story. And it now has a short history of contests which allow ordinary mortals to vote on where the Martian rovers will go next or where Hubble will point for its next detailed shot. Naming the new ISS node was just an extension of its attempts to get people engaged and involved. But this contest backfired.

Thankfully, Xenu, the Satan of Scientology, was left far in the dust by the top two choices; Colbert and Serenity. While Serenity might sound like a classic name from a Zen garden, it’s still a tribute to the short lived sci-fi TV show Firefly. On the one hand, NASA would put the spotlight on a comedy phenomenon which gives it plenty of airtime and attention on a nationwide show seen by millions of people every weekday. On the other, it would be giving a nod to a cult favorite that was on and off the air before you could even find your remote and switch to the right channel.

Of course as all cult favorites, Firefly has a devoted following which will be plenty mad that a short faux rant robbed them of their chance of a cosmic tribute and the focus might shift off the ISS to a popularity contest in the blogosphere. NASA might be tempted to sidestep a pop culture fight and assign a brand new name to Node 3 but that might hurt their chances of soliciting participants and suggestions for its next contest. If the agency can override whatever you choose, why even bother to vote?

So, Astroengine readers, what do you think Node 3 should be named when we consider all these nuances? Would NASA getting involved in the world of entertainment be a good thing? And how do you think it could take its brand and promotional efforts further to inspire more people to take an active interest in space exploration?

12 thoughts on “NASA’s Continuing Foray Into Pop Culture”

  1. I am a Firefly fan who was looking forward to immortalizing Serenity but it’s kind of like Ken Rudin’s 2012 brackets that got hijacked by the Ron Paul brigade — if the voting was left open to this kind of manipulation, ya got to let this one slide and just be more aware of how this stuff can get hijacked for next time. I say we suck it up and name the module Colbert. We’ll have other chances, maybe even better ones. Maybe someday there can be an orbital habitat called Serenity. Or (after an Enterprise, of course) a by-Bog starship!

  2. I didn’t vote, but I think NASA should choose “Serenity”. NASA, today more than ever, has to remember people’s dreams and cater to them in a way a large bureaucracy tends not to do. Spaceflight isn’t just about new medicines, better ways of predicting weather or developing new materials in microgravity. It’s about our dreams. It’s about humanity’s desire to continue exploring and leaving our nest. Naming the module after “Serenity” is tacit acknowledgment of the dreams many of us share.

    Frankly, while I completely understand why Colbert did what he initially did, I’m very disappointed that he hasn’t done the decent thing and said “enough” and put and end to this ridiculous controversy. I thought he was just an entertainer able to shine a spotlight on the foolishness of politicians. Now he looks like just another egomaniac. Colbert can end this sad argument by speaking up but his ratings are obviously more important to him (at least in the opinion of this *former* Colbert fan).

  3. I think Colbert should throw in the towel – and encourage NASA to honor Brian The Bat, who sacrificed its life for space exploration, with a node on the ISS.

    Or, if Colbert doesn’t have the decency of doing that, NASA itself could make that decision addressing at the same time, the topic of animals involved in space activities.

    Brian The Bat!

  4. “I’m very disappointed that he hasn’t done the decent thing and said “enough” and put and end to this ridiculous controversy. I thought he was just an entertainer able to shine a spotlight on the foolishness of politicians. Now he looks like just another egomaniac.”

    Actually, I would say that pretending to be an egomaniac is a big part of his character. Remember that the basis for his character was Bill O’Reilly, a loudmouth pundit who’s latest book is all about how much his teachers loved him as a kid and how wonderful and talented he was from birth. And his latest shows? Threatening Spain that he won’t visit the country because he disagrees with its government, prompting Spaniards to wonder “who the hell is Bill O’Reilly?”

    Since this is the person Colbert is trying to mock, he has to give ego-maniacal speeches and demand that NASA name the Node after him. And if it doesn’t, he’ll pretend to suck for a few days. It’s all just part of the act to be taken as nothing more than Colbert being his amusing character. At the end of the day, when he goes home, he just has a big laugh about it.

    Again, naming the mode Serenity is not exactly going with a timeless classic like Apollo or Discovery or Atlantis and rebuking pop culture fads. It’s calling a module after a movie for an extremely short lived sci-fi show.

  5. A Module By Another Name… Is Still A Module
    While I am one of those who’d gladly name
    The third module of our dear ISS
    Serenity (a Browncoat hath no shame)
    I really do not share in the distress
    Of those who watched an upstart named Colbert
    Steal Joss’ thunder and round up more votes.
    I laugh instead, for during this affair
    Ron Paul’s folks also earned themselves some gloats
    And stole Ken Rudin’s presidential poll.
    These “scandals” move me equally. They’re meant
    For fun, as are, say, psychic friends. How droll!
    So go ahead and fuss, Browncoats, and vent.
    Then think about how cool it all would be:
    Serenity: The Lunar Colony!

  6. metric select this blog to flog of flag of freedom who in wisdom twice lecture intelligence revolution of about NASA ……….

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